Gay woman's Missouri divorce clears way for others

Monday, May 19, 2014 | 2:44 p.m. CDT; updated 3:36 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 19, 2014

SPRINGFIELD — A southwest Missouri woman's quest to get a divorce might have opened doors for other married gay couples whose relationships have gone sour.

Mary Hilsabeck had been separated from her wife for two years and wanted a divorce, but she was told by attorneys both locally and in Iowa, where she married Lynette Meng in 2009, there was nothing she could do.

States typically require someone to live there at least a year before they can file for divorce, but Hilsabeck didn't know how that would happen in Missouri, where gay marriages aren't recognized.

"I looked at other states to see residency requirements," she told the Springfield News-Leader. "I've got two kids in high school and work at a job with the federal government — a job I've had almost 25 years. It just wasn't feasible to quit and try to find residency somewhere else."

Hilsabeck wants to retire soon, but she couldn't draw on her benefits in the short term without a signature from Meng, who also would have had rights to her retirement benefits. Hilsabeck also was in a new relationship and wanted to move on from a marriage that essentially ended two years earlier.

She saw an opportunity when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act last June and spoke to attorney Michael Bridges about her options.

While the federal government, which also is her employer with the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners, recognized her marriage, the law wasn't clear whether Hilsabeck could divorce in Missouri.

"We decided that our best first action was to file for a divorce here in Greene County and see what the outcome was," Bridges said. "Thankfully, we were successful in that effort."

Judge Mark Powell signed off on Greene County family court commissioner Scott Tinsley's recommendation to grant the divorce.

"This couple was married legally in another state," Powell said. "All I'm doing is giving them a divorce legally in Missouri, giving full faith and credit to the state law under which they were married. I don't think there's anything that prohibits me from granting that."

That judgment on Hilsabeck's divorce came on April 1, and nine days later a same-sex couple in Boone County also was granted a divorce.

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